OPINION - Given the burning context in the United States over the last week, some brands and tech companies (but not only) have decided to cancel their events, with some even officially joining the Black Lives Matter movement and others actively participating in the public debate. But is this really their role? Should tech remain neutral on social and political issues?
It's also a question for us, a tech media outlet that could be criticized for talking about something that doesn't directly concern us. But the societal climate has rarely been so hot in the United States since the death of George Floyd, killed by a policeman in Minneapolis on May 25. Proceeding uprisings and demonstrations, both peaceful and violent, against systemic racism and police brutality that is plaguing the American way of life.
Logically, the public debate is invested by many political actors, activists, polemists but also private companies. In tech alone, Google, Sony, EA, and Microsoft have canceled their respective conventions scheduled for June. Sony even added that "more important voices need to be heard," officially rallying to the protesters' cause.
Other tech companies, such as Twitter, are actively engaging in the public debate. The social networking site has made a name for itself by moderating some tweets from Donald Trump and other political figures around anti-racism protests in Minneapolis and the rest of the country.
But to what extent can private companies with private interests that do not represent the public take part in the public debate? Total neutrality would be nonsense to me, and it is a personal opinion that I defend in this article. However, it bothers me to see private actors taking over issues that are beyond their control.
Companies and brands cannot close their eyes
As a brand, the first objective is to develop a relationship with your consumers, both current and potential. A relationship of trust by making itself identifiable or relatable. A brand that is not disconnected from my reality, that takes into account what is happening around me, shows that it is interested in me.
We have seen this on several occasions with Nike for example, which often surfs on societal polemics to align its products or advertising campaigns with them. This was the case for the sale of a Hijab for sport. Another example, more related to the current context, was Nike's campaign with Colin Kaepernick, an NFL player who has become a symbol of protest against police violence and racial hatred for 'taking a knee'.
Together is how we move forward. — adidas (at 🏡) (@adidas) May 30, 2020
Together is how we make change. https://t.co/U1nmvMhxB2
In the two cases mentioned above, Nike was a commercial and stock market success, but on the other hand, there was also an outcry that castigated Nike's initiative, going so far as to call for a boycott of its products. Admittedly, some of the detractors were 'ideological' and political opponents of the Black Lives Matter movement, for example, some of whom were surely racist.
But other opponents of the campaign were against it because they saw it as the opportunism of a brand surfing on a social context to make people talk about it and sell products. In tech, that same criticism applies even more. Why is Sony Playstation taking a stand on anti-racism in America? What is its legitimacy? I don't really think that's an issue, though.
Of course, it is a constant criticism that we refer to brands in this era where it is necessary to be more and more "woke" or aware of societal issues. Many companies are siding with the "good" in order to improve their image out of pure commercial interest.
We are excited to tell you more about Android 11, but now is not the time to celebrate. We are postponing the June 3rd event and beta release. We'll be back with more on Android 11, soon.— Android Developers (@AndroidDev) May 30, 2020
But it is, in my opinion, a logical evolution of brands that is necessary to adapt to a changing society, although this evolution is not totally disinterested. This is where I think the line should be drawn. A tech brand can't ignore a particular context or a current event as strongly as nationwide anti-racism demonstrations. It's only natural that it should talk about it. But to take sides?
When private companies invest in the public debate
For a brand like Sony, Google, or Microsoft, publicly expressing opposition to racism and police violence is not a problem for me. I, therefore, find the cancellation of events quite logical and welcome initiatives taken by brands to show that they are aware of the challenges presented by the current social climate.
There are indeed things more important than the PS5 and Android 11 right now. But what I find dangerous is the fact that these brands are taking sides. Let's understand each other, there are no sides on the issue of racism. You can't be "for" racism and legitimately defend it, I think we can all agree on that.
When I talk about taking sides, I am referring to the fact that the public debate about systemic racism and how to organize its eradication pits political camps against each other. Anti-racist movements such as Black Lives Matter and others facing pro-police (Blue Lives Matter) or universalist (All Lives Matter) currents but also racist movements of the alt-right.
In this case, this is particularly the case of Twitter, which I find embarrassing here. The platform repeatedly moderated tweets from Donald Trump, including a tweet related to the Minneapolis protests because it violated Twitter's rules regarding the glorification of violence.
Certainly, the fact that the U.S. president is threatening protesters that "when the looting starts, the shooting starts" is questionable and I understand in a way the moderation of Twitter. But still, I'm embarrassed to see Twitter take on the colors, literally, of the Black Lives Matter movement and share its hashtag in the bio of its official account.
Racism does not adhere to social distancing.— Twitter Together (@TwitterTogether) May 29, 2020
Amid the already growing fear and uncertainty around the pandemic, this week has again brought attention to something perhaps more pervasive: the long-standing racism and injustices faced by Black and Brown people on a daily basis. 🧵 pic.twitter.com/8zKPlDnacY
Not that I'm against this movement, but it's disturbing to me that a platform like Twitter takes sides in a social struggle when at the same time it aspires to be the referee. Especially since the platform, just like Facebook, is known to host hateful content and have difficulty preventing its proliferation.
Moderation in the face of impartiality: the Twitter case
According to Mark Zuckerberg, platforms should not "play the role of arbiters of online truth" and this is why Facebook and Twitter have until now exempted political figures like Trump from most of their rules. All this to the benefit of the respect of freedom of expression which is much more unconditional in the U.S. than in Europe.
I don't share Mark Zuckerberg's approach either. Zero-rate moderation is a disempowerment that even YouTube has had to abandon with its status as a "safe haven" that makes a platform a simple content host and therefore not responsible for the nature of the content it hosts. This status is provided by section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a text that Trump wants to change so that it no longer applies to Twitter.
As soon as the platform intervenes on the content it hosts, it takes the de facto role of publisher. And I think that's a good thing. I'm in favor of Twitter moderating the tweets that circulate on its channels. But whoever wants to moderate must be impartial, especially if the moderation is about public and political debate.
So we can't remain neutral like Facebook, but Twitter's approach is biased in my opinion. Moderating a Trump tweet loses all legitimacy when the platform openly declares its support for fundamentally anti-Trump movements.
I don't think keeping quiet is tantamount to complicity as Netflix tweeted about the events in Minneapolis. But I also don't think that companies, tech or otherwise, have an obligation to remain neutral.
To be silent is to be complicit.— Netflix (@netflix) May 30, 2020
Black lives matter.
We have a platform, and we have a duty to our Black members, employees, creators and talent to speak up.
I understand that they are on the record. They have people from all walks of life among their clients and especially among their employees. It's hard to remain silent on the issue of racism in the United States for these companies that have black employees and customers and want to be heard.
In the end, in my opinion, the goal should not be to speak out so as not to appear complicit; it would be enough to show that we recognize the seriousness of the current situation and the importance of the issues it represents. But not to overstep its nature as a commercial enterprise in order to give a political dimension to positions that have, at least in part, a marketing impact.
Basically, for me, it takes a middle ground between the Facebook and Twitter approach. You have to be neutral as a brand, as a company, not take sides. And you have to moderate the content that you host if it's against the rules related to incitement to hatred and violence for example. But not because it is contrary to a political position that we have taken as a private company.